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This collection celebrates one of the most important of Lambert’s enthusiasms—ballet. From 1931 to 1947 he was conductor and musical director to the Vic-Wells Ballet, in which capacity, it is generally agreed, he raised the status of ballet in England to a level it otherwise might never have attained. Sir Frederick Ashton considered him the finest ballet conductor with whom he ever worked; even more important than his sense of rhythm was his inspiriting presence in the pit. Lambert’s all-round, in-depth culture was particularly valuable in the context of ballet, which partakes of many arts. When the young Robert Helpmann arrived from Australia in 1933, Lambert helped him by suggesting books he should read, pictures he should look at, and music he should listen to, and later discussed with him whatever he had managed to read, see and hear. Margot Fonteyn was also a protégé of Lambert in this respect. Among the many ballet scores first performed by Lambert were Vaughan Williams’s Job in its theatre version, Walton’s Quest and Façade, and Bliss’s Checkmate, Miracle in the Gorbals and Adam Zero—all major works.
Lambert composed four ballets of his own—Romeo and Juliet in 1924–6 (the first ballet commissioned by Diaghilev from an Englishman; Lambert was twenty), Pomona (1926), Horoscope (1937) and Tiresias (1950/51). Romeo and Juliet and Pomona are still in thrall to the Stravinsky of Petrushka and Pulcinella, while Tiresias, remembered by Tom Driberg as a score of ‘strange and wild beauty’, was unpublished and unperformed until recorded by Hyperion in 1998 (). Horoscope is the most traditional, and for that reason no doubt the most popular of these ballets. The ‘tradition’ is that of Tchaikovsky and thence of the pre-war Diaghilev Russian Ballet. When Lambert says of Tchaikovsky that in a work like Swan Lake he’d managed to reconcile the physical and classical demands of the dance with the emotional and romantic demands of the story, he could easily be describing his own achievement in Horoscope; and if romantic or lyrical elements predominate we need look no further than the name of the dedicatee for the reason. Margot Fonteyn and Lambert had a close relationship for a number of years, and there is surely no harm in suggesting that in the last movement of Horoscope, ‘Invocation to the Moon and Finale’, the strength of their love is both attested and immortalised.
Lambert provided the following statement of the ‘theme’ of his ballet: ‘When people are born they have the sun in one sign of the Zodiac, the moon in another. This ballet takes for its theme a man who has the sun in Leo and the moon in Gemini, and a woman who also has the moon in Gemini but whose sun is in Virgo. The two opposed signs of Leo and Virgo, the one energetic and full-blooded, the other timid and sensitive, struggle to keep the man and the woman apart. It is by their mutual sign, Gemini, that they are brought together, and by the moon that they are finally united.’
Horoscope was first produced at Sadler’s Wells in January 1938. Ashton was the choreographer, Michael Somes danced the Man, Fonteyn the Woman; Lambert himself conducted. It was typical of Lambert’s involvement in all artistic aspects of his work that for the cover of the published scores (orchestral and piano) he arranged for a horoscope chart to be specially drawn by Edmund Dulac. The concert suite accounts for about two-thirds of the complete score (25 minutes out of 35).
The Walton–Lambert relationship was a close one, both personally and musically, and has yet to be examined in detail. It seems that though Lambert was the younger by three years or so, he was the natural mentor and guide, rather than the other way around. Certainly he was associated with Façade—Walton’s first major work—almost from its inception. In its original form it was an ‘entertainment’ for speaker(s) and instrumental ensemble; in Walton’s estimation Lambert was one of the best speakers the work ever attracted, and a famous early recording of selected numbers exists in which Lambert shares the speaking role with Edith Sitwell, the authoress of the poems. Lambert was the dedicatee of Façade and collaborated with Walton on ‘Four in the Morning’ (not in the suites). In fact in many ways Façade is Walton’s most Lambertian work, not least in its recreation or stylisation of popular idioms.
Lambert once wrote of the Sitwells’ (Edith and Sacheverell’s) poems that for all their ‘modernistic’ overtones they belonged in reality more to the classic tradition of English poetry, ‘more particularly that of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when beauty was not yet divorced from wit, and when it was realised that artifice and sincerity were not necessarily antagonistic’. He could just as easily have been describing the music of Façade. In Music Ho! he praises the latter as one of the few successful examples since Chabrier of ‘sophisticated music with a popular allure’, the ‘concentrated brevity’ of its contrasting numbers, ‘satiric genre pieces, over in a flash but unerringly pinning down some aspect of popular music, whether foxtrot, tango or tarantella’ being in his view one of the strongest features of Façade. Another was the tunes—‘one good tune after another, the waltz is an excellent waltz, the tarantella an excellent tarantella. Theirs is not the obvious humour of a Beerbohm parody. They are not only like the originals but ridiculously like’. Lambert also considered that, for Walton, writing in a popular idiom had the salutary effect of clarifying his melodic line, but for which the poetic achievement of the Viola Concerto or the slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante would not have been as great.
In 1926 Walton took five of the more self-contained numbers of Façade, omitted the speaking voice, and transcribed the instrumentation for medium orchestra. Lambert dcscribed this suite as a ‘very enjoyable work’ while admitting that it represented but one side of Façade, the brilliant, satirical side. Lambert looked in vain for the pastoral charm of ‘Daphne’, or the sinister atmosphere of ‘Four in the Morning’—forgetting, presumably, that these could not have stood upon their own without the speaker and would have needed to be completely re-composed. Clearly Walton wanted to keep as closely as possible to the form and rhythm of the original settings. Lambert noted ‘the only piece in which he has departed from the original form of the poem is the Tarantella-Sevillana, perhaps the most successful number in the suite, where the material has been considerably expanded into a brilliant burlesque of the ‘Mediterranean’ style’.
It was this first suite which attracted the attention of three major choreographers—Gunter Hess in 1929, Frederick Ashton in 1931, and John Cranko in 1961. The second production, of course, was the one with which Lambert was associated. He conducted the first performance of this ballet when the Camargo Society gave it in London in April 1931, and almost certainly scored the extra Façade numbers incorporated both on this occasion and in 1935 when the Vic-Wells Ballet first danced the work. Only after the Second Suite for orchestra had been published in 1938 could the composer’s own orchestration be used for the entire ballet.
We here follow the order recommended by Walton when the two suites are performed at a single sitting.
In 1921 the thirty-year-old Arthur Bliss conducted, at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert, an orchestral piece called Melée Fantasque in which he had tried to depict the brilliant colours and movement of the theatre; listening to it, and to the marvellous Colour Symphony of 1922, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to recognise them for what they are in essence—ballet scores manqués. There was, however, nothing manqué about Bliss’s first ‘real’ ballet, Checkmate, which is one of his best works. At the time he was writing it, 1937, he was living in Hampstead which at that time was a hub of creative activity in many spheres: Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Adrian Stokes, George Orwell and Stephen Spender were among his neighbours. No wonder Bliss was stimulated when engaged by projects like Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come and Checkmate. You can sense an uncommon enthusiasm in his own account of the latter in his autobiography As I Remember:
1937 was an exciting year for me, planning as I was my first ballet. I had often thought, in the years before the First World War, when I first saw the splendour of the Diaghilev ballets, how glorious it would be to have one’s own music created anew in the dance; and now the chance had come to write a work to be given at a gala performance by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet [as it was then called] in their first season in Paris the following year.
I knew exactly what subject I wanted for my dramatic ballet—the game of chess. This had always fascinated me, though I knew I could never be anything but an average player … I had as collaborators Ninette de Valois for the choreography and McKnight Kauffer for the costumes and decor. Ninette de Valois, who had danced in the Diaghilev Ballet, was that rare fusion, both artist and organiser, … McKnight Kauffer at this date was chiefly known for his striking poster decorations, but there is no doubt that his early death robbed the theatre of an outstanding designer. Neither knew anything about the game of chess, and so I held sessions in my Hampstead home, during which I moved the pieces about on a big chessboard and demonstrated their characteristic moves—the knight’s jump, the bishop’s diagonals, the queen’s mobility, the king’s tottering shuffle, etc.
I wrote my own scenario, and in this I had expert advice of W Bridges Adams. My wife and I had first met him in the years following our marriage, when we saw his lively production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in the old theatre at Stratford. After giving up his directorship of the Shakespeare Company there, he joined the Drama Department of the British Council … There was little about the history of the theatre that he did not know, and from his fund of experience he gave me one specially useful tip. It was this: if you are going to play about with an exact intellectual conception like chess, woo your audience with a bit of realism first, and then they will accept your romantic departures from the expected. So, early in the ballet the pieces appear one after another on the gigantic board, and at one precise moment line up in the exact position for starting the game. I like my colours to be brilliant, and with the opposing sets of pieces clothed in red and gold, and black and silver, I certainly got my wish.
There were long discussions about the nature of the two players in the game. At first I wanted them shown as huge shadows over the board, but it was eventually decided to have them in the flesh as actors to open the drama. They could be costumed to depict Night and Day, or Alpha and Omega, or Black and White, or any other obvious contrast. Finally, we chose Love and Death, and here again my first idea was that, though Death wins the game, Love should be seen setting up another row of pieces, demonstrating that Death’s win is no final one.
It was a joy to me to see this my first ballet take shape, with the wonderful cast assembled, among them Frederick Ashton as Death, Harold Turner and William Chappell as the Red Knights, Michael Somes as a Black Knight, Robert Helpmann as the old Red King, and Margot Fonteyn leading the Black Pawns. In the first performances the main role, the Black Queen, was danced by June Brae.
The opening was fixed for June 15th in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The almost inevitable last difficulties attending any new production were present in full force. There was considerable confusion in the front of the house over precedence, protocol, who should sit where, and whose bouquet should be largest, but it was nothing to the chaos behind the curtain, due to a sudden strike of scene-shifters in the Paris theatres. This is where the experience and panache of Bridges Adams, acting for the British Council, shone brightly. Ordering food and wine to be brought backstage, he addressed the scene-shifters in fluent Stratford-atte-Bowe French, enlarging on the glories of the French dramatic tradition, and on this unique entente between them and a famous British company. Mellowed by wine, and astonished at his oration, the scene-shifters leapt to their feet, the stage was set just in time, and the curtain went punctually up on the first ballet of the evening, Les Patineurs, conducted by Constant Lambert …
Checkmate has danced itself round a good part of the world since its first performance in Paris, and the Black Queen has become associated in my mind with Beryl Grey, whose beauty and dramatic power have contributed greatly to the success of the ballet. Checkmate brought me my only meeting with Toscanini; he had seen the ballet and been sufficiently interested in the music to invite me to come to his hotel suite in London and visit him …
Bliss denied any direct or conscious influence, but something of the fraught atmosphere of the times must have entered the music which, like the game, has a ruthless quality, no quarter asked or given. There may be some trace of Prokofiev (he too was a chess-player and Bliss would probably have known his Diaghilev ballets Le Pas d’Acier and The Prodigal Son) but if so it’s well absorbed. In fact for all its alert, incisive rhythms (a Bliss fingerprint), its harsh brilliance of scoring and its discernibly romantic underpull, the shape and substance of the music is quite classical, and the connection between the dedicatee (R O Morris, composer, teacher, renowned contrapuntist, and chess-player) and the steely contrapuntal mise-en-scene of the ‘Prologue’ cannot be coincidence.
The ‘Prologue and Five Dances’ represent approximately half of the complete score, which lasts for about fifty minutes.
Prologue: The Players: The two players sit motionless on a raised dais with a chessboard between them. The armour of the one is golden, of the other black. The Golden player slowly removes his vizor, disclosing the features of Love, the Black player slowly strips his gauntlet, disclosing the skeleton arm of Death. They turn the chessboard three times for move. Love wins; lights dim; curtain up.
Dance of the Four Knights: The two Red and two Black Knights leap on the board and dance, ‘Allegro moderato, sempre robustamente’. The Reds challenge the Blacks to a display of daring; Red Knight I surpasses them all. The Red Pawns applaud their Knights and start dancing with them. At the end the four Knights make their challenging gestures simultaneously.
Entry of the Black Queen: The most dangerous piece on the board. The Black Knights fall on their knees, the Red Knights and Pawns remain spellbound—so much so that Red Knight 1 follows her across the board as if hypnotised. She throws him a rose, and leaves the stage.
The Red Knight’s Mazurka: An exuberant solo dance for Red Knight 1.
Ceremony of the Red Bishops: The two Red Bishops enter, each escorted by a Pawn. The latter raise their banners and slowly dip them, so as to give the stage the appearance of a chapel. The Bishops bless the kneeling Knights.
Finale: Checkmate: The final onslaught of the Black forces begins; black pieces appear on every side, the Pawns holding long lances. The Red King, irresolute and terrified, is forced gradually back until he stands on the steps of his throne, a ring of enemies surrounding him. Then, at the moment of death, he has a vision of himself as a young and strong ruler. He draws himself up to his full height … the Black pieces waver … but the Black Queen enters from behind the throne and stabs him with a spear. He lifts the crown from his head and falls headlong in the circle of enemy lances and swords.
Christopher Palmer © 1990